Tonight President Obama will deliver the first State of the Union Address of his second term. As we learned from former presidential speechwriters, under the modern presidency, the objectives of the SOTU are to set the president up for what he is trying to achieve that year, to get a bounce in public approval, to inoculate the public when introducing controversial policies and to generate support for those policies within Congress. Yet, because the SOTU attempts to do so much, it rarely makes history, serving instead as a laundry list with few memorable moments or lines. Thus, the SOTU tends to contribute to the idea that presidents are remembered more for what they do than what they say. Still, the SOTU is valuable since it lays out a president’s objectives and provides a basis by which we might measure his accomplishments. We combed through our archives and offer in this post what we think are the the memorable SOTU addresses in the modern presidency.
A speech is part theater and part political declaration; it is a personal communication between a leader and his people: it is art, and all art is a paradox, being at once a thing of great power and great delicacy.
-Peggy Noonan, Former Speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, from What I Saw
On February 12, President Obama will deliver the annual State of the Union (SOTU) address to a joint session of Congress. What distinguishes the SOTU from other presidential speeches is that it is the only constitutionally mandated speech. This post offers historical perspective on the SOTU based on insights from former speechwriters for presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and William Jefferson Clinton.
The State of the Union was transformed with the onset of the television age. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson moved the SOTU from midday to evening in order to attract a larger television audience. Indeed, tens of millions of Americans (roughly 30% of households with television) are expected to tune in to watch the address. But televising the speech has meant that presidents are more limited in what they can say. Televised State of the Union addresses delivered from Dwight D. Eisenhower to present have ranged from 3,500 to 9,200 words. One way that Richard Nixon dealt with this limitation was to limit what he said about foreign policy and draft a separate “State of the World message.” In 1970, for example, Nixon gave only a broad outline of his foreign policy in the SOTU, but on February 18 of that same year, he transmitted the “First Annual Report to Congress on United States Foreign Policy for the 1970s.”
According to Lee Huebner, speechwriter for Richard Nixon (and corroborated by the National Archives), it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who popularized the term “State of the Union” in 1935. From 1790 to 1934, it was simply called the “Annual Message.” Even though the most memorable speeches tend to be short, like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the SOTU has essentially become a laundry list of wide-ranging policies on the president’s agenda for the year.
So what purpose does the SOTU fulfill? The answer tends to vary by president.
On this day in 1922, President Warren G. Harding had a radio installed in the White House. On June 14 of the same year, Harding became the first president to have his voice transmitted to the American public by radio. Although President Harding’s address was not radio-specific (Calvin Coolidge was the first to deliver a presidential address on radio in 1923), the broadcast of Harding’s speech dedicating a memorial site for Francis Scott Key heralded a revolutionary shift in how presidents addressed the American public.
Check out the Miller Center’s Warren G. Harding Speech Exhibit, which features 14 audio excerpts of speeches given by Harding before 1922. The audio clips were recorded from 1917 until 1921 during three stages in Harding’s career—as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, and finally as President of the United States. The recorded collection was first assembled by President Harding’s nephew, Dr. George T. Harding III.
On Monday, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed a packed Miller Center Forum. Earlier in the afternoon, she was generous with her time and met with more than 50 students from politics, history, and other classes taught by Miller Center faculty and from the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. She was pleased to see such a multi-disciplinary gathering, and remarked on the importance of aspiring leaders to have such a wide and diverse background of study. Today, we bring you some highlights from her exchange with the students.
Albright began by noting that we are living in a very complicated time in which there are more forces that are less and less controllable and don’t lend themselves to the tools of statecraft that we possess. The tools of statecraft that we possess – aid, trade, sanctions, threat of force, force, etc. – work in relations between states. But now we are dealing with non-state actors and they are both difficult and bring different forms of war.
In a book she prepared for the president in 2008, she argued that there are five big umbrella issues the U.S. must effectively deal with:
- fighting terrorism without creating more terrorists. She noted that the death of Osama bin Laden was important, but we have to address the root causes of terrorism, including poverty, alienation and the remnants of colonialism.
- the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
- addressing the growing gap between the rich and poor
- energy, environment and climate change, and
- restoring the good name of democracy.
Today, she would add a sixth issue to that list – the global financial crisis.
The use of drones presents a tough challenge. Albright posited that they are are effective, but the decision making around their use is cloudy and this presents problems. Another significant challenge the United States and world faces is cyber war. For example, can a cyber attack trigger NATO’s Article V protection of collective defense? How do we retaliate in case of an attack? Should cyber attacks be included as a tool of statecraft?
On this day in 1911, Ronald Wilson Reagan (a.k.a. “Dutch,” “The Gipper,” “The Great Communicator”) was born in Tampico, IL. Check out the Miller Center’s resources on the Reagan Presidency:
- The Ronald Reagan Oral History project includes some forty-five interviews with those most closely involved in Reagan’s political career, including Cabinet members, White House staff, and campaign advisors. Among those interviewed are Richard Allen, Frank Carlucci, James Miller, George Shultz, William Webster, and Caspar Weinberger.
- Listen to and watch some of the most important speeches delivered by President Reagan.
- Read in-depth essays on Reagan’s presidency.
Leading up to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, which will be delivered on February 12, 2013, RTT will provide historical insights and feature materials from our archives.
“[The President] shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient...”
-Article II, U.S. Constitution
Seemingly innocuous constitutional provisions like the one above in Article 2, Section 3 are known for becoming less trivial in the era of “modern” presidents and “legislative leviathans.” When it comes to State of the Union addresses, however, the proof requires far less evidence. On February 12th, Barack Obama will give a speech before both Houses of Congress and a national television audience, and barring a significant shift in presidential strategic action, it will contain a substantive, charismatic appeal to the American people to support his 2013 agenda.
These descriptive facts are alien to States of the Union prior to the 20th century. A simple comparison will make the point clearer. Consider Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union in light of another titanic speech certainly worth remembering: the 1850 address of Millard Fillmore.
This is inaccurate, of course, because the 1850 State of the Union was not a speech, it was a letter (as the substantial proportion of SOTU addresses have been). In it, there is little in the way of emotional appeals, and it has an “agenda” that is minor by modern comparison. Fortunately, Fillmore was courteous enough to report the annual revenue and expenditures, and contributions to the reduction in national debt. In addition, it contains pledges to respect the office, an explicit reference to the state of nature, and general references to the goings on of the past year.
Today marks the anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster when the shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. Watch this video of President Ronald Reagan’s address to the nation on January 28, 1986 from the Oval Office. President Reagan was originally scheduled to deliver the annual State of the Union address that evening. Challenger was supposed to be the first mission to put a civilian into space. Reagan reminds the country of the bravery and dedication of those who were killed on the shuttle. The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the shuttle program and the formation of the Rogers Commission appointed by President Reagan to investigate the accident.
During the Miller Center’s January 18th GAGE colloquium, Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, gave a preview of 2012 Election data that, in his words, is “hot off the press.” Stewart gleaned answers from a survey of over ten thousand respondents to some of the most interesting questions regarding election administration in the recent election, including topics such as reasons motivating voter turnout and public opinion regarding voter ID laws.
Overall, Stewart stressed that the vast majority of Americans have a good voting experience. A large proportion of voters wait five minutes or less on election day, and the vast majority of voters say it was very easy to find their polling place. However, Stewart’s talk suggests that more work could be done. In both his colloquium paper and talk, Stewart cited what V.O. Key wrote in 1949: election administration is “the most primitive and neglected branch of our public administration.” This suggests that more time ought to be spent addressing, in a systematic and scientific way, the administrative challenges associated with the expedience, accuracy, and accessibility of voting.
Stewart showed those states that had previous problems with long wait times, particularly Florida, tended to continue to have the same problems--rebutting the notion that the 2012 Election was particularly problematic in that way. Instead, Stewart said long wait times are more often a function of statewide policies, year after year.
For more, watch the full colloquium, which also touched on issues such as higher wait times for minority voters and partisan polarization over election reforms.
Forty years ago today, President Richard Nixon announced to the nation that the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had finally concluded an agreement to end the war in Vietnam. Nixon had promised to end the Vietnam War in his campaign for the presidency in 1968. In his reelection campaign in 1972, he once again promised to end the war in Vietnam in such a way as to ensure a "a full generation of peace."
In his address on January 23, 1973, Nixon told the nation:
We must recognize that ending the war is only the first step toward building the peace. All parties must now see to it that this is a peace that lasts, and also a peace that heals—and a peace that not only ends the war in Southeast Asia but contributes to the prospects of peace in the whole world.
The official cease-fire, along with the release of all American prisoners of war, went into effect on January 28, though troops remained in Vietnam until the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Brian Balogh, the Compton Professor at the Miller Center and the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, opines on CNN.com that President Obama’s second inaugural address matters because future historians will mark it as the moment the president explained why he is a progressive:
The programs that Obama called for were characteristically liberal: reaffirming the social safety net, equal pay for women, etc. Nothing new here -- just the Obama classic.
What differed this time, and what this moment was made for (to twist the president's own words) was articulating the progressive rationale for these programmatic ends. "Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action," Obama proudly told the nation...
His second election behind him, Obama linked his fate and the nation's to a rationale that propelled tens of millions of Americans into the middle class. By making collective action explicit, Obama yoked a century-old progressive agenda to the nation's founding documents and its past history. "Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people." To achieve America's lofty goals of "life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" will require back watching, backslapping and no shortage of back-scratching as well.
Read Brian’s full op-ed here.
The theme of this year’s inauguration is “Our People, Our Future,” a theme intended to promote national unity and reconciliation as most inaugurals do. In a Presidential Inaugural Committee video released over the weekend, President Obama noted that two men he admires more than anyone in American history are Dr. Martin Luther King and President Abraham Lincoln because without them, he would not be in office. The inaugural weekend once again featured a “Day of Service” because the public ceremony falls on the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday. President Obama told the country:
The inauguration reminds us of the role we have as citizens in promoting a common good as well as making sure we carry out our individual responsibilities.
President Obama will be sworn into his second term using the bibles of Dr. King and President Lincoln, bringing additional significance to the inaugural ceremonies as this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Dr. King’s speech to the participants in the August 1963 march was one of the most memorable moments and he roused the crowd by addressing the racial injustices and discrimination that continued to plague the nation 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. He criticized the nation for defaulting on a “promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned”:
Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
In some of the most powerful lines of the speech, Dr. King told the crowd he had a dream. Among his dreams was that his “four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
January 20th marks not only the anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration as president of the United States in 1981, but also the release of 52 American hostages who were held in Iran for 444 days.
President Reagan had hoped to make announcement regarding the release of hostages in his inaugural address and, in fact, wrote an insert of his own for that contingency. If the hostages were released on Inauguration Day, he was going to get a signal, and then he was going to announce to the country that the hostages were released. Ken Khachigian, Reagan’s chief speechwriter, argued with him about making the announcement during the inaugural. According to Khachigian, who gave his account of the matter during a Miller Center symposium:
I said it would interrupt the historical quality of the speech, that he could easily do something about that after the speech. It wouldn’t fit into the nature of the inaugural address. But had they been released during that speech and had he gotten that signal, he would have read that insert.
Of course the hostages were released shortly after Reagan took the Oath of Office on the day Jimmy Carter departed, but not early enough for Reagan to receive the signal and include the announcement in his inaugural address.
In short diary entries in the days following the Inauguration, Reagan wrote about the conclusion of the crisis:
Hostages will arrive in country tomorrow. It seems some of them had tough questions for Carter in Germany as to why they were there so long and why there were there to begin with.
Ceremony on S. Lawn to welcome hostages home. Thousands of people in attendance. Met the familys [sic] earlier. Now we had in addition the familys [sic] of the 8 men who lost their lives in the rescue attempt. One couple lost their only son. His widow was also here. I’ve had a lump in my throat all day.
Check out these interviews conducted for the Miller Center's Jimmy Carter Oral History Project, which offer insights into not only how the President and his team handled the hostage crisis for the U.S. government, but also how the crisis crippled Carter's 1980 re-election campaign. Interviews for the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project also shed light on how Reagan's team viewed the situation, and how they approached it even before the nation's 40th President was inaugurated.
The inaugural address is one of the most important speeches a president will give. It has a special place in political life because it documents the history of the nation. Indeed, as Ken Khachigian, the chief speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, noted:
One thing that struck me about reading all the inaugural addresses is that they are a history of America. You can go through, beginning with Washington, and you can learn all about the country just by reading them. If you did nothing else, you’d know almost all about the history of the Civil War, about the Depression, about World War I, about World War II, and about the Vietnam War.
Don Baer, speechwriter for Bill Clinton, summed up the importance of the inaugural address as “the one communal national monument that we have had right along, throughout the entire history of country.” And Ray Price speechwriter for Richard Nixon, called the inaugural a “ceremonial speech with a programmatic content” and “one of the great sacraments of democracy.” He said the opening lines of Nixon’s first inaugural summed up what the sacrament is:
“Senator [Everett] Dirksen, Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, President Johnson, Vice President [Hubert] Humphrey, my fellow Americans, and my fellow citizens of the world community, I ask you to share with me today the majesty of this moment. In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free.”
In June 2008, the Miller Center hosted a symposium on presidential speechmaking that featured nine former Republican and Democratic speechwriters who served every president from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton. One of the sessions included a discussion on Inaugural Addresses. The session provided an insider account of writing the inaugural address, what makes an effective inaugural and what the addresses should be about. In this post, we highlight some of their key insights.
Patrick Anderson, speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, noted that in an inaugural address, you introduce yourself as President, you are no longer just a candidate:
It is solemn. It is historic. I think it I also, under the surface, a very competitive situation, because you are very aware that you are going to be judged against [John F.] Kennedy and [Ronald] Reagan and other great speeches of the past – which tends to inspire both the candidate and his writers to make their best effort. It shouldn’t be partisan or political. It should be inspirational and personal, I think. It should be an attempt to unite the nation for a new start, which all new presidents think they’re going to accomplish.
I think that inaugural addresses ought to be elevating. I think they need to remind the nation more of what we have in common than what divides us.
One aide to George H.W. Bush called the Inaugural the “biggest day” of any commander in chief’s life. Today we bring you some more inaugural memories from the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program archives.
Max Friedersdorf, staff director for the Senate Republican Policy Committee, discussed how Jimmy Carter’s domestic policy advisor, Hamilton Jordon got in “deep do-do” with House Speaker Tip O’Neill when he didn’t get the Speaker enough Inaugural Ball tickets in 1977:
Well, first thing that happened, they got in deep do-do with Speaker O’Neill and they never recovered the whole four years. Hamilton Jordan also got cross-wise with the Speaker. After a while, [Frank] Moore hired Bill Cable and Dan Tate, who were Hill people. Great guys, perfect, but they should’ve been brought in at the start. He didn’t hire anybody. He was just going to do it himself. He didn’t return a phone call from Tip O’Neill and he didn’t get him all the tickets he wanted for the inaugural and Tip never ever let him off the hook. He couldn’t get in Tip O’Neill’s office; he was barred. Congressional relations barred! So when we got up there we never had any contact with him whatsoever, none. In the two years, I never saw Frank Moore. And I don’t think any of the Republican Senators or staff—I think they’d tell you the same thing. I don’t know where they were. But I think that was part of Carter’s problem, obviously.
President Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, discussed having President Carter sign off on a restricting of the national security team during an Inaugural gala:
I sat down with him [Carter] one evening and we worked on a formula for two committees. One committee would be called PRC—Policy Review Committee, which would deal with long-range policy issues and would be chaired by a Secretary. Prior to each meeting, the notion was that I would submit a memo to Carter informing him that a PRC is to be held on such and such a topic and that I recommend that the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense chair it. You approve it. The other committee would be called SCC—Special Coordination Committee, and that would be for crosscutting interagency issues. I would chair that committee. The three crosscutting agency issues would be: covert activity, arms control, and price management. Carter loved that. I drew up with David Aaron, my deputy, a memorandum which we called presidential directive because we changed the names of the previous papers. I took it to the Kennedy Center, at the time of the presidential gala the evening before the inaugural, and during intermission got Carter out and had him sign it, and the next day at 3 p.m. right after the inaugural I had messengers deliver copies of it to Brown and to Vance and to whoever was acting before Turner to inform them of the new arrangements. They were surprised.
William H. Webster, FBI Director, recounted watching the 1981 inaugural parade:
I can mention one funny incident, at the inauguration. We were invited and we sat up in that upper area where officials sit during the inauguration. We had a great view of Pennsylvania Avenue from the FBI, and I had invited a number of people to come back and watch the parade from my office space on the seventh floor, including some of George Bush’s relatives, I’m trying to think who all they were. A lot of family people came up. But I needed to get back. So they’d arranged to get us in a car which was parked outside and head down Pennsylvania Avenue. Right alongside us was the young son… Young Ron, Ronnie. He didn’t have the right license plates. He was to be the first car in Pennsylvania Avenue and they wouldn’t let him go, he didn’t have the right license plates. That put our car first going down from Capitol Hill. My late wife, Drue, was wearing a red coat. The only other person wearing a red coat was Nancy Reagan. We were starting down, these people were looking in, Now who is this? They didn’t realize that Reagan had gone to have lunch with Congressmen. So yes, they started waving, so we started waving back. We had a wonderful time all the way down Pennsylvania Avenue.
One aide to George H.W. Bush called the Inaugural the “biggest day” of any commander in chief’s life. From the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program archives, we bring you some inaugural memories. These excerpts also appeared in the Washington Post on January 11, 2013.
President Jimmy Carter discussed the legislative horse-trading on his 1977 Inauguration Day:
I had several meetings with the Georgia [congressional] delegation, either private breakfasts at the White House or even before I went to the inauguration. We had a tacit understanding that if I really needed them on an issue of importance that I would let them know directly and they would make every effort to support me, even though it was damaging for them at home. But if I didn’t really need them, they would vote in accordance with what they thought was best for them and their own constituents.
Frank Moore, Carter’s congressional liaison discussed picking an office at the White House:
I remember [John F. Kennedy aide] Larry O’Brien telling me when I asked him about it. He said it was the damnedest thing: All of them ran from the inaugural platform to the White House. . . . Guys were moving desks because nobody made any assignments. He saw that all the offices on the ground were going to be taken, so he ran up the steps to sort of an attic, where boxes were stored. . . . He said it worked out great. In fact, he advised me not to get on the first floor. I asked why. He said: “Well, you have tourists and people coming in, plus you can’t have a beer or take your shoes off down there. You guys will get back from the Hill late at night, and you will want to take your tie off and sit around and talk, and it’s hard to do that downstairs. You’ll always get interrupted.” And he was right.
Michael Deaver, deputy chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, discussed his first impressions of the Oval Office:
Walking into that office with [Reagan] — he sat down behind the desk . . . and before he opened that drawer that had Carter’s note in it, he looked over at me. He had both his hands on the desk, and he looked at me and said, “Have you got goose bumps?”
Lloyd Cutler, White House counsel to Carter, discussed the final moments of the Iran Hostage Crisis. American hostages in Iran were released shortly after Reagan’s 1981 inaugural speech:
I don’t think I went to bed from sometime on Sunday morning until Tuesday after the day of the inauguration. After [President Carter] had gone with the Reagans up to the Hill and the actual inauguration ceremony had begun, I was still sitting on that telephone waiting for the final word on when the [American] hostages’ plane had actually taken off from Tehran. . . . About 1:30, finally, with something under each arm and a couple of other people helping me carry things out as I walked out of that West Wing basement, something caught my eye. Instead of the photographs that I was accustomed to looking at — [Carter] with the pope, meeting with Brezhnev in Vienna, et cetera — there were photographs of Ronald Reagan and his dog. By 1:30 on January 20, the transition had happened, the new photos were up, everything was ready for the new president to return to his White House.